Back in July, Republican ad man Jon Downs met with fellow veterans of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign at a local IHOP for their quarterly professional catch-up.
“He said, ‘Unbeknownst to you guys, I’ve been working and I’ve signed with Ron Paul,’ ” Scott Douglas, a Republican political operative and Downs’s first boss in politics, recalled. “And my mouth dropped.” Douglas said others in the breakfast crew “twitched and laughed” and “rolled their eyes.”
Not anymore. Paul has inched in from the margins to position himself for an unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses. His radical economic views are getting a fresh hearing in awful economic times, and his highly organized and well-funded ground game has attracted support beyond his base of young, committed Paul zealots.
But as much as Paul likes to claim that the mainstream has come to him, he has also pursued it. Exhibit A : Downs, a media mercenary who is about as far as it gets from a traditional Paul revolutionary.
“I wouldn’t consider myself a member of his army,” said Downs, a self-described mainstream Republican, as he reclined on a recent evening in his downtown D.C. studio.
But Downs is engineering the campaign’s broadsides.
On Monday, the Paul campaign unveiled a Downs ad eviscerating Newt Gingrich as a Washington insider. An earlier, equally brutal ad out of Downs’s shop prompted a question during Saturday night’s GOP debate. Other Downs productions have included a frenetic, in-your-face spot called “Big Dog,” modeled on Ford’s F-150 truck ads, in which Paul is depicted as having the bite to back up his bark while his opponents are “whimpering like little Shih Tzus.” It received a sendup from Conan O’Brien.
“Driving eyeballs to our stuff maybe takes a little more work or creativity than if you are Barack Obama or Mitt Romney,” explained the 34-year-old Downs, characteristically rumpled-looking in jeans, a blue sweater and Mephisto shoes. Voters appear to be watching. An American Research Group poll released on Monday showed Gingrich’s lead down five points to 22 percent among Iowa caucus-goers, while Paul and Mitt Romney both climbed to 17 percent.
While Paul benefits from Downs’s experience appealing to mainstream Republican electorates, Downs gets the prestige and payday of playing a critical role on a presidential campaign that, even if unsuccessful, amounts to a high-profile audition for the ultimate nominee.
Working for Paul is “a great opportunity for me,” Downs acknowledged before pivoting to talk about his admiration of Paul.
It’s also a ticket into the top echelon of sniping media consultants.
“The ads are better than Ron himself — more presidential, substantive and slick,” said Fred Davis, a veteran Republican media consultant who is known for his unorthodox ads — remember “Demon Sheep”? — and who is working for Jon Huntsman.
When informed that Downs had spoken disparagingly of ad men in Hollywood, where Davis resides, and of his remarks in the interview dissing the “Demon Sheep” ad as a gimmick, Davis reconsidered his earlier praise, calling Downs’s “Big Dog” ad a “direct copy of the Ford F-150 ad.”
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After graduating with a double major in political science and history from the University of Wisconsin, Downs arrived in Austin in the summer of 1999 to take a menial job with his uncle’s gardening Web start-up, Garden.com.
The position, he said, was really a “gig to allow me to pester the Bush people” at the campaign’s Austin headquarters. Drawn to the “compassionate conservatism” message of Bush, Downs showed up at Bush campaign headquarters and volunteered in the political shop. For four months he shredded papers and entered data, and his bid for a staff position in the correspondence department failed.
“I went back to my uncle and I was like, ‘Look, if I can’t even get a job in correspondence, what am I doing?’ ” said Downs, who grew up in the Northern Virginia community of Vienna, the son of a teacher and a father who owned a small packaging company.
He contemplated moving up at Garden.com, but stuck it out with Bush. His break came when Douglas dispatched him to the primary states. He proved his mettle, and in the general election he took on more responsibilities, becoming executive director of the campaign in Delaware. There he met his wife, Alicia, who had considerably more political experience at the time.
“There was a little rivalry,” Downs said. “She still won’t admit this, but she worked for me.”
“I couldn’t stand him,” said Alicia Downs, who consults for Mitt Romney’s political action committee.
After Bush’s victory, most campaign staff accepted political appointments in government, but Downs, then 23, took a job as political director in the Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Mark Earley. “A lot of people thought I was a little bit crazy,” he said.
As political director in the 2001 campaign, Downs oversaw a staff that included Jonathan Martin, a young driver who is now a prominent journalist at Politico and one of Downs’s best friends. Downs was known as the sort of relaxed boss with whom you could knock back beers and speak freely. But he took the loss to Democrat Mark Warner hard.
“That’s when I learned money is helpful in campaigns,” Downs said.
After the defeat, Downs sought and got a political appointment in the administration as a low-level Department of Justice official, but government didn’t suit him. He left soon after for his first media gig, a six-month stint at the end of the 2002 election cycle with an outfit called DMN media, the N representing Terry Nelson, the political director of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. After the elections, he returned to Austin to try his hand in the general market, and participated in the unveiling of Shiner Light beer.
“They paid me to buy people beer,” he said approvingly.
But he missed politics and returned to DMN, where he stayed for five years before striking out on his own in 2008 with Bright Media, a one-man shop run out of his studio, in an alley next to a gay bar off Massachusetts Avenue NW. In the 2010 midterm elections, his ads aired in more than 20 congressional districts.
In 2011, he rejoined Nelson at FP1 Strategies. (Nelson backed the more mainstream candidate Tim Pawlenty, who quickly dropped out and was recently named the “Least Influential Person Alive” by GQ.) “He did not try and sell me on Pawlenty,” Downs said.
In the summer, Trigvy Olsen, a Republican strategist who worked on Rand Paul’s 2010 Senate race, reached out to Chris LaCivita, a GOP strategist best known as media adviser to the Swift Boat Veterans who targeted John Kerry’s presidential campaign, for recommendations for an ad guy for the Ron Paul campaign. He suggested Downs.
The campaign approached him, and Downs said he talked it over with his wife, a Romney campaign veteran who works at Target Point media with Romney’s master microtargeter, Alex Gage, and consults for Romney’s Restore Our Future PAC. “It’s a small town,” Downs said. “Everyone is working on different races.”
Downs said he doesn’t show any of his Paul-related work to his wife before it’s public, and she insisted that they don’t even talk during the debates.
His portfolio for coming Paul ads is packed with material, he says, about Gingrich, Perry and the rest — all playing the Shih Tzu role. Asked if had a negative spot ready to go on Romney, he demurred.
“I don’t get into campaign strategy,” Downs said and waited a beat. “I’ll say, ‘You haven’t seen your last Ron Paul ad.’ ”